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Rodney Class v. United States, USSC No. 15-3015, cert granted 2/21/17

Question presented:

Whether a guilty plea inherently waives a defendant’s right to challenge the constitutionality of his statute of conviction?

Lower court opinion: United States v. Class (unreported) (D.C. Cir. 2016)


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Though this is an appeal of a federal prosecution, it may well affect state practice. We’re all familiar with the general rule that a guilty plea waives the right to raise pre-plea constitutional violations on appeal. The Supreme Court has carved out a couple of exceptions to this rule: double jeopardy violations, Menna v. New York, 423 U.S. 61, 62 n.2 (1975); and vindictive prosecution claims, Blackledge v. Perry, 417 U.S. 21, 30-31 (1974). Menna and Blackledge were both challenges to state convictions. It’s unclear from the decisions whether the waiver-rule exceptions were constitutionally required, though it’s not clear what other basis the Court could have had to decide the effect of the defendant’s state-court guilty plea.

This case will decide whether a claim that the statute of conviction is unconstitutional survives a guilty plea. Petitioner was convicted of possessing a gun in an area–a parking lot near the U.S. Capitol–where federal statute forbids them. He claims that the statute violates his Second Amendment rights and his Due Process right to notice (because there is no sign informing entrants to the parking lot of the ban). He argues that his claims survived his guilty plea on the theory that they, like double jeopardy and vindictive prosecution claims, do not involve a challenge to his factual guilt. Thus, the argument goes, his admission to having committed the prohibited acts–i.e. his guilty plea–should not be viewed as waiving his right to claim the prohibition itself is unlawful.

The question is the subject of a three-way circuit split, with three circuits holding such challenges waived by a guilty plea, five holding them not waived, and three (including the Seventh) holding only as-applied–but not facial–challenges waived.

Wisconsin state courts, like the Seventh Circuit, hold that facial challenges survive a guilty plea while as-applied challenges do not. State v. Trochinski, 2002 WI 56, 253 Wis. 2d 38, 644 N.W.2d 891. Depending on the grounds for decision, this case has the potential to affirm this rule, modify it, or leave it untouched.

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